Graeme Armstrong (2020) The Young Team

Gore Vidal is attributed with the quote, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. Graeme Armstrong is not a friend of mine. But the title of his book, The Young Team needs no detailed sociological explanation. I don’t need to go searching for definitions in The Urban Dictionary.  I’m proud to be working class, less proud to have a chib mark on my face and knocked guys out and been a baw hair away from being killed. I know about drink and drugs. When I started writing short bits about people I knew that had died, the bodies started stacking up. Many of them were suicides. Armstrong is telling me nothing new. But he’s on my turf. When I try and get my manuscripts for novels published and get knocked back that’s a lot of work. And I need to rise again. Go again. He succeeds. And part of me is glad, but part of me isn’t, because publishing is a small world. When I think of it I think of it, think of them, I recall the  D.H. Lawrence poem, The English Are So Nice.

Publishers are so nice

so awfully nice

they’re the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more they’re so very nice about being nice

about your being so nice as well!

If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Publishers are middle-class. Armstrong and me are working class. His is a niche publication. He’s taking up my space, but it’s not his fault we live in a middle-class world. It’s not my fault. The exception to the rule is used to prove the rule. A bit like coloured cabinet ministers in Tory land. Look, we’re not racist, their leader can say. His success is my failure.

But Armstrong is braver than me. His first-person, personal account, is in Scottish dialect. That’s a killer. James Kelman gets away with it in books about working-class life such as Kieron Smith, boy—a coming of age novel that covers some of the same ground—because he won the Brooker Prize with How Late it was How Late. Armstrong’s two sponsors of the book, Kerry Hudson and Janice Galloway use dialect, but only in direct speech. Alan Bisset also wants to let his characters in Boyracers, speak like he speaks, with a Falkirk twang, but descriptions are in the Queen’s English. Carl MacDougall’s characters when they swear say ‘fuckin.’ No apostrophe. Bernard MacLaverty (an honorary Scot) characters say ‘fucken’ (or it might be the other way about – I can’t remember). William McIlvanney’s characters swear, but perhaps less than you’d think.  Maggie O’Farrell’s characters don’t swear much, but then again, they tend to be more middle-class and go to university. Geniuses such as Lewis Grassic Gibbons (James Leslie Mitchell) create their own hybrid written-spoken language of North East dialect for a young Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song to tell her story. Language can be a bit of a fuck-up and the more extreme can sound like pastiche of proper Young Team patter.

The beginning of the book, when the narrator is thirteen or fourteen-years old sets the tone. The book follows him and his muckers progress for about eight years. The Young Team, the Airdrie team, are living the life. The book is set out like a report. Part 1, Crucible. I’m not sure I like that. Or think it’s necessary. Let’s just tell the fuckin story, like Bernard Hare does in, for example, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew  (but then again his chapters in his novel begin with crappy poetry). Here’s the beginning of the book. Judge for yerself.

Urban Legends 2004

The rain n wind ir fuckin howlin. We’ aw stood intae a wee corner oot the wet n away fae the eager eyes ae Strathclyde’s finest. At weekends our area is jumpin wae polis, aw lookin tae bust yi. They never wanted tae git their boots muddy, walkin doon the Mansion but, so yi wur usually safe here. There’s two community police that sometimes ventured doon n busted cunts rollin joints, the fat wan called Muldoon n the skinny wan we aw called the Roadrunner, cos he’s rapid. The elder wans had told us aboot the polis raidin it once before we knew of the place’s existence.

Writing the gallus is easy. Writing the vulnerable is what makes characters walk and talk and become human. Azzy might be a hard wee cunt, but he’s just a wee boy and as he grows up he discovers clan loyalty isn’t enough. It offers no way out and he has panic attacks and becomes depressed. He’s not the only causality. Every day is ground-hog day and it’s wearing on the body and mind. With no way out, some of the not-so-young team become smack addicts in their teens, some kill themselves, some are killed. There are statistics in the chapter headings. But Azzy carries on his battle and it becomes with himself.

Higher education is the escape route. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced. And for such a poverty-stricken area, The Young Team, wae Azzy it’s leader, seem to be smoking dope and drinking all the time. Aye, I get that. But where’s the cash coming from? That I don’t get. It’s never made clear, in the way the music the kids listen to is, the tracksuits and sannies they wear and the cars they drive when they become older are.

Aurally, aye, I say to the way it is written. But those that need to read a book like this would be put off by the language. The dialect makes reading hard work. The middle-classes are so nice. So very, very nice. They might be surprised by what Armstrong writes about. I’m not. I know the score.  Azzy is not very nice, but his life is worth reading. Read on.   

Carl MacDougall (2017) Someone Always Robs the Poor

someone always robs the poor.jpg

I was aware of Carl MacDougall in an oblique way. I hadn’t read any of his work, but knew him to be the editor of one of the classic Scottish texts The Devil and the Giro: The Scottish Short Story. When I found out the Scottish Book Trust had approached him and he had agreed to be my mentor for my second novel I was chuffed.

I googled him. This is his latest short-story collection, by the now defunct publishers Freight. I admit to a bias here. A hatred of what we’ve become. Mean minded and petty. In a word it’s about class and lack of it.  Tim Winton touches on it his essay ‘Using the C-word.’ Carl MacDougall gets it right here. Someone Always Robs the Poor. The theft has become more systematic since the nineteen-seventies when we lost the propaganda war and the advent of Thatcherism/ Reeganism, the growth of individualism and if it was going to end in farce it ends in Trumpism. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in apocalyptic tragedy.  Someone always robs the poor, but with the added element of hatred –it’s all their own fault- and we’re to blame for society’s ills.

Someone Always Robs the Poor is the second story in MacDougall’s collection. It begins with the narrator watching the pigs eat her book of fairy tales. They leave behind the feudalism of Poland, the coming genocide of Nazi Germany and their family has a golden to ticket to the promised land of America. Look at the title again.

All day my father stood at the back of the cart waving his hat, and when my mother told him to sit down, he said, I am waving goodbye to Poland. I am looking to see what I have to take with me.

The narrator’s father is an older man. He has purchased his wife, who is very beautiful, and kept her as his own. Hubris leads to nemesis in Leith, Edinburgh, which is not America as the father believes. The streets are not paved with gold, but the sweat of indentured labour.  Someone always robs the poor.

‘After the dance’ is not about romance, but rape and how it curdles a person and poisons families.

In Sunset Song, Chris Guthrie’s mother dies and his father almost kills himself working the land. He calls to her from his sickbed, she’s the flesh of his flesh and he wants her. In MacDougall’s story ‘Spitting it Out’ an old man gets out of his sickbed to go and visit his estranged daughter. She’s no right in the heid he says, with they accusations. But we know the story is as old as the bible.

‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis,’ alcohol in the blood, wet brain. You know the score. Last chance for sanity. Get off at this stop kind of story.  The narrator, like many of us, have been in the wards, been in the wars where there’s no winners, only losers and those that think they can drink the same as everybody else, or like they used to, when things were better. Amy Liptrot does a smashing job in The Outrun of sinking into the words and the ways we explain to ourselves how we need to drink because that’s how we reward ourselves, and when we’re down that’s just the thing for a pick-me-up. When we see a sunset, how the day is so much sunnier with a beer in our hand. Korsakoff is that Glasgow thing. We drink to be happy and we drink to be sad. Drink it our mentor and tormentor.

Carl MacDougall writes about violence, rape, incense and murder. I guess we’re singing from the same hymn sheets. We speak the same bastardin’ language.

In the preface to Scots The Language of the People, MacDougall uses the c-word. Class. ‘The educated classes struggled to rid themselves of “Scotticisms”’.   What was left was the dirt and people that roll in it. That’s me. I’m holding my hand up. It’s no surprise that Billy Connelly is quoted on the back leaf of Someone Always Robs the Poor, ‘Carl is a hero of mine…a great storyteller’.

I envy Carl MacDougall the breadth of his education, the depth of his reading. But the thing about books are they don’t care who you are. Anyone can turn the page and if they’ve got a wee notion, they can read and they too can learn.

I was thinking for example about fucking. You’ve probably heard of it. But more in the dialect sense. When I was writing about Jaz, for example, I wrote. You fuckin’ cunt. Then changed it to you fuckin cunt. The latter is closer to the style that Bernard MacLaverty uses in his short stories. Then one of the characters in Carl MacDougall’s stories says you fucken cunt. Oh, dearie, dearie, which one of us is right?

Well, it’s Carl MacDougall, obviously, because he knows better than most than language is a living thing. Bastard. If you turn to Scots the Language of the People, the section marked Tom Leonard – read on:

The poster for the Makars’ Society advertises a

GRAN MEETIN’

THE NICHT

TAE DECIDE THE

SPELLIN’

O’ THIS POSTER

And the admission price is Thritty pee (a heid).

This wasn’t the only anachronism in the language argument Tom Leonard spotted. On the publication of Six Glasgow Poems in 1969 he altered the argument and rules of engagement by introducing the urban voice and insisting it should be heard, transcribing living Glaswegian speech to prove that language is defined by class as much as by region or country and that working-class speech is as suitable a vehicle for poetry and serious thought as any other;

Tom Leonard: The Voyeur.

what’s your favourite word dearie

is it wee

I hope it’s wee

wee’s such a nice wee word

like a wee hairy dog

with two wee eyes

such a nice wee word to play with dearie

you can say it quickly

with a wee smile

and a wee glance to the side

or you can say it slowly dearie

with your mouth a wee bit open

and a wee sigh dearie

a wee sigh

put your wee head on my shoulder dearie

oh my

a great wee word

and Scottish

it makes you proud

 

 

 

Growing up in Scotland, BBC 1, director and writer Liam McArdle.

schools.jpg

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08gd0gc/growing-up-in-scotland-a-century-of-childhood-series-1-1-education

This is fantastic viewing. I wasn’t about in the 16th Century when John Knox thought it a good idea that every village and every Kirk should have a schoolteacher, and every child should be able to read god’s word in the bible as a bastion against Popery. Until fairly recently that was the model of schooling for many children in Scotland and can be viewed through the prism of novels such as Sunset Song and characters like Chris Guthrie. The people that owned the land, owned the people on the land, then as now, but they added value to their subjects by education. This is not a new idea. Sam Wilkin, Wealth Secrets of the 1%, shows how around 115BC Roman slaves were educated to what would be considered nowadays ‘professional’ level and ran the equivalent of vast conglomerates, because educated slaves could be sold for more and gave greater value to their owner. This may explain how Scotland, a little drip of land in the Atlantic, produced so many wealthy and world leaders, but let’s not forget the role of British Empire, with many Scots as administrators.  Andrew Carnegie is another example, born and in Dunfermline in 1835, his upward trajectory to becoming one of the richest men in the world from humble beginnings has its roots in village schools, but also in the decline of handloom weavers and the movement from the land of the majority of the population to urban centres. This is shown graphically in a number of ways. Legislation dating back to 1872 that all children between the ages of 5 to 13 must attend school and must receive an education, which would be provided by the parishes and later by local authorities. With the population of Glasgow growing faster than that of London or any other metropolis, Tureen Street accommodating 1200 pupils was built in Carlton’s East End in the nineteenth century, but before the school was finished an even bigger school, St James’s was being built 150 yards away. These were ‘temples of learning’. But the writer James Maxton, the son of two schoolteachers, noted something that was picked up by recruiters in the Boer War and The First World War, out of 60 youngsters Maxton took for physical education lessons, only 30 could push their knees together. Rickets and disease was the bed companions of the urban poor and this was reflected in the school intake.

Richard Holloway remembers school as being something done to you. Rote learning and the tawse. Every teacher had one and the programme takes a step back into history and visits Lochgelly, were tawse making was an industry. I must admit I couldn’t quite work out how schools would work without pupils getting the belt. It seemed to me then a rather stupid idea to outlaw it. I’m sure if the current 680 000 pupils in Scotland had their phones and tablets taken off them and were made to walk to school and thrashed soundly every day we would have a more disciplined society. Don’t think North Korea, with more rain, but my schooling forty years ago.

The darker side to education is also touched upon Holloway and by the former Machar Liz Lochead. Protestants went to one school, Catholics went to another. This to me is an anomaly that needs to be changed. And private schools which feature here (a measly £36 000 per annum, per pupil) those social carriages of the rich, should be shut down, not expanded. But I understand why there were Catholic and Protestant school. Hate. In 1918 there were 450 000 Catholics in Scotland, most of them if propaganda was to be believed, living in a single end in Glasgow. Kirk run schools didn’t want them and Catholic charity schools tended to be substandard and their pupils received substandard teaching. The riches of local authorities were thrust upon Catholic schools and they have flourished, and their pupils have flourished, having a better educational record than their Protestant counterparts. But I’d argue their time has past. We are a secular society. No more Catholic or Protestant schools. Certainly no more tax breaks for the private Edens of the upwardly mobile. Just schools. And anybody that suggests that we should go back to testing and the eleven plus, really should watch this programme.  Didn’t work then. Won’t work now, but as we know it’s not about that, it’s about saying my children are better (and more deserving) than yours.  In the competition for top university places and jobs every little bit does help. That saddens me, but I can see through it. It’s here. Watch this programme.